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High Schools | Eric Sondheimer

Opponents Take Passing to Hart

October 19, 2003|Eric Sondheimer

When quarterbacks Nate Longshore of Canyon Country Canyon and Mike Herrick of Valencia combined to pass for 735 yards and nine touchdowns in a 52-45 offensive shootout Thursday night, a message was sent to 12-time defending Foothill League champion Newhall Hart: Your streak is in jeopardy.

In more than 14 seasons and spanning 59 games, Hart has not been beaten in league play. With 18 consecutive years of All-Southern Section quarterbacks, the Indians' strategy has been simple: Passing the ball translates into success.

Finally, Canyon and Valencia understand the challenge. They've adopted a similar offensive philosophy featuring talented, fearless quarterbacks who are not intimidated by the Indians' past accomplishments.

"I'll be the first to say their offense is extremely effective," Valencia Coach Brian Stiman said of Hart. "I haven't been able to stop them, so why not join them? We never were as effective throwing the ball as we are now. We thought that was essential in order to help us take it to another level."

Coach Harry Welch's Canyon teams won 46 consecutive games and three section championships from 1983 to '85. He left coaching after the 1993 season but returned to Canyon in 2001 and discovered Hart, under Coach Mike Herrington, had passed everyone by.

"They raised the standards so high," Welch said, "that it was unreachable by the other schools in the early 1990s through now."

The fact that Hart started this season with consecutive defeats to Los Alamitos, Ventura St. Bonaventure and Westlake Village Westlake emboldened the Cowboys and Vikings, especially seeing Hart's defense give up large amounts of yardage. But Hart (3-3, 1-0) has made steady improvement on defense during a three-game win streak, sending its own message that the streak won't be easily derailed.

First up is Thursday night's game against unbeaten Canyon (6-0, 1-0) at Canyon. The Cowboys' home stadium seats 6,000 and the game will be televised live by Fox Sports Net 2. The two schools routinely attracted sell-out crowds of more than 8,000 at College of the Canyons during the 1980s. Some parents are expected to show up by 6 a.m. Thursday in an attempt to reserve seats with blankets.

People might want to adopt a Rose Bowl-like parking strategy for the game: Show up early and hope you can find your car later amid the darkness and parking madness.

How big is the Canyon-Hart game? So big that Jay Leno gave his "Tonight Show" crew the week off in preparation for the game. At least that's the joke being told by Leno's monologue coordinator, Jack Coen, whose son Sean is a standout receiver for Canyon.

Sean Coen, who had a school-record 13 receptions for 190 yards and three touchdowns against Valencia, knows this week will be special.

"I've never played in a game this big before," he said.

Canyon has already beaten Hart twice since June -- in summer passing tournaments. Yes, they were mere flag football encounters, but those victories were of psychological importance for the Cowboys.

"It was a meaningless summer passing league, but the intensity was September-, October-game high," Welch said. "There were four ex-All-CIF [Hart] quarterbacks standing in the huddle watching every play. We got their attention, and that was good for both schools."

Having his players perform to the best of their ability under intense pressure is the trick Welch must pull off.

"We're going to prepare like we've never done before," Canyon defensive end Chachi Spann said. "It's the biggest week of our lives. Mentally, it's not about [Hart] anymore. It's about how we decide to play. They're high school kids like us. They put their pants on one leg at a time. They play mind games with everybody. I think I'm ready to give them some mind games of my own."

Welch has certainly turned around the Cowboys in short time. His varsity, sophomore and freshman teams this season have a combined record of 16-1-1. Fan interest is soaring, as are expectations.

"I'd say if we would continue our success, the frenzy will match anything of the '80s," Welch said.

From a talent perspective, Canyon matches up well with Hart. The individual duels will provoke great fan debate. Who's the better quarterback, California-bound Longshore or All-Southern Section returnee Sean Norton? Who's the better running back, Canyon's Louis Montano or Hart's Dan Howell? Who's the better receiver, Coen or Hart's Kevin Ciccone? Who's the better linebacker, Canyon's Andrew Schantz or Hart's Brian Elledge?

In the end, the outcome could come down to mental toughness, something Welch has tried to teach his players over these last three seasons.

"We really didn't buy into it my sophomore year," Longshore said. "This year, at the beginning of our workouts, we said we were going to buy in no matter how hard it is and see if it's going to work."

Stiman coached with Welch for 12 years at Canyon, then took newly opened Valencia into the Foothill League in 1996. He's 0-9 against Hart.

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